Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 13, 2009 - Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India

Friday morning Ravi picked us up for a bit of sightseeing before we headed over to Forestry to pick up our permit. Our visit to the Chatham Saw Mill (the second largest in Asia; founded in 1883 during the British colonial period) was an experience. Giant tree trunks were being ripped down into planks by huge band saws operated by barefoot men wearing no protective goggles. OSHA would have a field day. Leaving the saw mill we looked down into a crater left by British bombers when they took back Port Blair from the occupying Japanese at the end of World War II. Moving on to the Maritime Museum we saw a wonderful collection of shells and coral, which was a good introduction to the species we hope to see in the waters around here. The highlight of the morning's tours was a film at the Anthropological Museum. It was farcical, and fascinating. Imagine The Life Aquatic set in some small islands off of India. I'm pretty sure the soundtrack was the same.

After the museums, it was time for lunch. Ravi took us to the Hotel ASM for a delicious meal of prawn biriyani (shrimp fried rice flavored with curry leaves and pieces of cardamom, star anise, and cinnamon), chiappati (soft whole wheat tortillas), and paneer butter masala (fresh, firm cheese - India's version of tofu - in a very tasty mild curry). It was all so good that we ate way too much. After lunch we spent way too long at an internet cafe, unsuccessfully trying to electronically file our state taxes, but successfully paying some bills and uploading pictures to the website. After a quick trip to the post office to mail the tax forms, it was time to return to the Forestry Department.

Friday afternoon at 3:00 we arrived at Forestry to pick up our permit. We met with the official who took our paperwork the day before. It was immediately apparent that it hadn't been prepared yet. Soon, we were ushered into the office of the Assistant Wildlife Warden. He wasn't alone. Actually, nobody seems to ever be alone in India. Every office we have been in has come equipped with a desk and at least three chairs for visitors, at least one of which is always occupied by the office holder's office companion. We sat down and waited for the Assistant Wildlife Warden to complete his discussion in Hindi with the gentleman to my left. Then he turned his attention to us. Within 2 minutes, it was clear that he had no idea who we were and was not familiar with our request. He said that our permit could not possibly be prepared today as the Chief Wildlife Warden was out of the office at a meeting. He asserted that the Chief Warden was the only one who could sign the request. I suggested that the documents could be prepared and the Chief Warden contacted by phone to approve them. The Assistant Warden's facial expression relayed that he did not like this suggestion.

We had no intention of spending the weekend in Port Blair waiting for a permit. We explained that we had submitted our paperwork the prior day and that we had been instructed to come back 24 hours later to receive it. We were here at the allotted time, as instructed. The Assistant Warden asserted that our paperwork could not be completed that day and that we would need to return to Port Blair from the outer islands next week to pick up our permit. There was no way that we were going to do a 100 mile round trip, just because this guy couldn't prioritize the paperwork on his desk. As we plead our case, it became apparent that the Assistant Warden could clearly care less about inconveniencing us. So we resorted to playing one department off of the others. We explained that we had already submitted our proposed itinerary to the Harbor Master, Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs. The Harbor Master had already approved our itinerary, including our departure from Port Blair the next morning at 7am. We couldn't possibly deviate from that schedule (which isn't quite true). We asserted that we simply had to have the permit with us when we left Port Blair. He threw up his hands and said "These things take time." Taking our cue from the golden statue of Gandhi, the father of non-violent protest, in the center of Port Blair that we had passed a dozen times in the prior two days, we responded "we'll wait" (the "right here" was silent). And we made ourselves comfortable.

This is one time on this trip that I've wished to have a passel of screaming, sticky children running around my ankles, touching other people's things, knocking things over, perhaps breaking something or producing a stinky diaper. Surely that would have moved the process along. Lacking kids, we sat quietly as various officials came in and out, carrying giant ledger books containing documents to be signed or plucking a ledger out of the leaning pile on the Assistant Warden's desk. We waited and watched. All around us, conversations were carried on in Hindi. There were certainly discussions about other subjects, but occasionally we picked up a look or word (Interview, Cinque) that suggested that they were discussing us, but no progress was occurring.

As we sat there we developed the impression that the Assistant Warden had recently been rotated into his post from somewhere else in India. He seemed unfamiliar with the local regulations. One of the junior officials from the outer office seemed to be arguing on our behalf, but the Assistant Warden was dismissive of his arguments. Once in a while the Assistant Warden would give us a look and say something like "This is a difficult situation." We would try to engage him in a discussion about how we could move things along, but he wasn't interested in having that conversation. Neither of us was wearing a watch, so we don't know how long we waited, but it seemed to be over an hour. At some point Sten looked up on the calendar hanging on the wall and asked me quietly, "is it Friday the 13th?" Of course it was.

Late in the afternoon, a tall, sharply dressed man, entered the office. The Assistant Warden and his semi-permanent office companion snapped to attention. The office companion quickly made himself scarce as this clearly more senior official and the Assistant Warden discussed us in Hindi. Then the ranking officer turned to us and addressed us in English. He asked us a few questions about our voyage from America, then turned to the Assistant Warden and said something in Hindi before leaving the office. We don't know if the senior official was the Chief Warden, but within minutes we saw some progress. Within half an hour of the senior officer's visit, the Assistant Warden, who had initially claimed that only the Chief Warden could sign our permit, was signing off on our permission to receive our permit. All we had to do was deposit our fee with another office and we were free to go.

While I waited by the taxi, Ravi accompanied Sten as he went to pay the fee, to make sure that the charges were reasonable. They waited for the paymaster in an office packed with desks, people, and piles of paper covering every surface, molding and disintegrating in the humidity. Eventually, our fee was paid (approximately $80) and we were free to go. While I waited for them, I observed green Andaman Pigeons alighting on the roof of the Forestry building (a real twitcher would have been excited - I just thought it looked like a big green bird). Before returning to the boat we picked up some fuel (even at the gas station every purchase is recorded in a large, bound ledger) and some fresh chicken (very fresh - we watched as a muslim holy man sprinkled water in their mouths and slowly slit their necks as he offered a prayer).

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